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The Most Important Women in the History of Video Games

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The days of the video game business being a boy's club are long over as women are now taking charge as some of the industry's top executives, but it wasn't an easy climb. In the '70s and '80s when the video game market was just getting itself established, women had to fight hard to get their voices heard in the completely male-dominated business. Those that did made major marks in the industry, not because they are women, but because their innovations and influences changed the world of video games for the better.

These are the most important, influential and historic women in the world of video games.

Roberta Williams: Co-Creator of Graphical Adventure Games, Co-Founder of Sierra

Screenshot © Activision Publishing, Inc.

One of the most important figures in the history of video games. In '79 Roberta became inspired after playing the text-only computer game Adventure and put together a design doc outlining an interactive game combining text with graphics. Her husband Ken, a programmer at IBM, developed the software engine and tech using their Apple II home computer. When finished their game, Mystery House, was an instant hit and the graphical adventure genre was born.

The couple formed the company On-Line Systems (later called Sierra), and became the dominating force in computer games.

By the time Roberta retired in '96 she was credited with over 30 top computer games, the majority of which she wrote and designed, including Kings Quest and Phantasmagoria.

Carol Shaw - The First Woman Game Programmer and Designer

Image © Activision Publishing, Inc.

Computer programmer Carol Shaw is best known for her work at Activision with the retro hit River Raid, but years before Carol had already made a name for herself in the history of video games. In 1978 she was the first woman to program and design a video game, 3D Tic-Tac-Toe for the Atari 2600.

In 1983, the final game that Carol would completely program and design herself, Happy Trails, released just when the video game market crashed. With the industry in shambles, Carol took a break from making games, but returned in 1988 to oversee the production of River Raid II, her final swan song in the world of console gaming.

Carol is now retired with her husband and fellow brainiac Ralph Merkle, a specialist in the field of nanotechnology.

Dona Bailey - The First Woman to Design an Arcade Game

Centipede arcade flyer © Atari

Determined to break into the game making biz, Dona received a position as an engineer at Atari in 1980. As Carol Shaw had already left for Activision, Donna was the only female game designer at the company. There she co-created and designed, along with Ed Logg, the classic arcade hit, Centipede.

After its release to instant success Donna disappeared from the video game industry only to resurface 26 years later as a keynote speaker at the 2007 Women in Games Conference. Donna admitted it was the pressure and criticism from her male counterparts which drove her from the business.

Today Donna encourages women to pursue careers in games and works as a college instructor, teaching numerous courses, among them game design.

Anne Westfall - Programmer and Co-Founder of Free Fall Associates

Packshot © Electronic Arts Inc.

A brilliant programmer, before Anne started working in games she had already created the first microcomputer-based program to help structure subdivisions (whew). In 1981 Anne and her husband, John Freeman, formed Free Fall Associates, the first independent developer contracted by Electronic Arts. Among their games co-designed by John and programmed by Anne was the hit computer title Archon, which at the time would be EA's biggest seller.

In addition to her work as a programmer and developer, Anne also served on the Game Developer Conference board of directors for six years. Today Anne and John continue to make games, renaming their company Free Fall Games.

Jane Jensen - Historic Adventure Game Writer and Designer

Packshot © Activision Publishing, Inc.

Where Roberta Williams left off, Jane Jensen picked up the torch and kept high quality adventure game writing and design alive. Jane worked for Roberta back in the early '90s where she got her start in Creative Services at Sierra, eventually writing and designing hits such as Kings Quest VI, the Gabriel Knight series and many others. Her work in classic games has molded how story and game design intertwine in modern point-and-click adventures.

Today Jane continues her work in computer adventure games with the latest line of Agatha Christie and The Women's Murder Club PC titles. Now she is developing her dream project Gray Matter, with developers Wizarbox and publisher DTP Entertainment.

Brenda Laurel - Specialist, Writer and Designer in Human-Computer Interaction

Brenda's life mission has been to explore how we interact with computers and the benefits derived from it. She started using games for her work back in the early '80s as a member of Atari's research team and Manager of Software Strategy. Then in 1987 she co-produced the educational, medical sim game Laser Surgeon: The Microscopic Mission which gave a virtual look at the technique of brain surgery.

In the '90s Brenda continued her work as one of the strongest voices in virtual reality research and development with her company Telepresence, plus co-founded one of the first software companies to specialize in developing games for girls, Purple Moon.

Brenda now works as a consultant, speaker and professor, teaching 2D and 3D Interaction Design.

Amy Briggs - Creator of the First Adventure Game for Girls

Packshot © Activision Publishing, Inc.

In Amy's brief stint in the world of gaming she showed a vision far ahead of its time with an adventure game featuring narrative and protagonists aimed specifically at a female audience.

In 1983 Amy worked at the text game adventure company Infocom as a tester. Her strong writing skills and go-getter spirit convinced the bosses to greenlight her concept for a text adventure romance game for girls, Plundered Hearts. After writing and designing Hearts, Amy co-wrote Gamma Force: Pit of a Thusdand Screams and co-designing portions of Zork Zero.

Amy left the gaming industry in 1987, returning to school to gain her graduate degree. Now she owns her own company specializing as a Human Factors Engineer, Cognitive Psychologist and continues to write.

Doris Self - First Female and the World's Oldest Competitive Gamer

Q*Bert Flyer © Sony Pictures Digital Inc.

At the age of 58 Doris was one of the first female competitive gamers when she entered the 1983 Video Game Masters Tournament and broke the world high score record for Q*Bert with 1,112,300 points. Although her score was beaten a few years later, Doris continued to work towards conquering Q*Bert.

Doris was featured in the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, when Pac-Man world champion Billy Mitchell presented her with a Q*Bert arcade machine, spurring the then 79 year old Doris to start competing again.

Tragically, in 2006 at the age of 81, Doris passed away from injuries she received in a car accident. Although she is no longer in the game her legacy will last in the annals of classic competitive gaming forever.

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